How to run a business properly

Although I haven’t even played badminton for a year now, my loyalty to a particular badminton academy has deepened. There aren’t many badminton academies in the Bay Area, at least not many worth mentioning. My academy used to be like the others — they had memberships, long hours, a shop, and other badminton services. Compared to other badminton academies, the one I had chosen to play had better lighting, a better community, respectful staff, cleaner facilities, and well-maintained courts. It only cost $9 to drop-in and play, just like other academies. Unsurprisingly, my academy started to gain popularity and people had to start waiting to play for a long time. There were some groups of people (e.g., companies) that were there mostly for socializing than to actually play, so they took up a lot of the space there while switching their own people on and off the courts. It really turns off the people who were there to play badminton, including the people who were dedicated to the sport and training there. These people were generally undesirable to have at the academy because, even if they bring a little bit more cash flow, they did not have the same respect for the courts and system as other players — often leaving a huge mess and hurting overall morale.

The academy made very smart decisions to manage the flow (as well as the kind) of people playing. They removed weekend hours and made the weekday evening hours start and end later. When I first heard of these changes, I couldn’t fully understand the motivation. Those were the times that the casuals played; casuals often came right after work and would leave early because they wanted to get ready for the next day. The new hours didn’t really affect me because I usually went in around the new starting time anyways.

I didn’t realize the impact of their decision until last night, which is a Thursday and I had expected a lot of people to be there. Thursday has historically been a very busy day because it was the chosen day for a large group of people from this company to play. On Thursdays, you’d have to wait for a longer time to switch on for a court, which is pretty annoying if you’re actually there to play the game. Last night, I didn’t see a single person from that company and there was actually a very healthy flow of people playing badminton. At the end of the night, there weren’t paper towels all over the floor and empty bottles scattered across the courts. Essentially, I feel like the academy had taken action to save the community. It’s working!

I realized that if the academy had been operating like today’s startups, they might have charged their members more — trying to capitalize on the popularity of the academy. This would ultimately lead to its demise, as no one wants to pay more and it doesn’t deal with the undesired players. They could have just encouraged more of this growth, dismissing the growing dissent among individual players. With more drop-ins, that would mean more money for the business. The business might accept the fact that people would leave the academy for a better place because there is a steady cash flow. It would, then, become just like some of the more established badminton courts out there — and soon become irrelevant.

However, this academy honors their most important customers and players. Some of these people play in competitive tournaments or are seriously trying to learn the sport. Although there are fewer of these people compared to casuals, they are important in sustaining the long-term integrity of the academy. I compare this sort of experience as similar to that of the community on Ars Technica. It’s possibly one of the best communities on the internet, with relatively good content and human interactions. As a news site, it can be tempting to go for growth metrics and for money (like ads) — but then it would just devolve into news sites like BuzzFeed and TechCrunch. For example, Ars Technica doesn’t punish people, it bores bad people with the insightful and thorough content about certain topics so they’d have a harder time to troll. People in general don’t like to read long posts, even if they’re high quality, so these articles appeal to a small group of people who’d actually take the time to read something worthwhile. What the badminton academy and Ars Technica are doing right is not straying from their vision. As tempting as world domination sounds, it’s not feasible and also goddamn greedy. Once you stray, the people who once believed in you will leave you.

As a counter point, there’s always a risk that people would be unhappy with the high barrier of starting to play badminton at the academy. Personally, if I didn’t have someone to play badminton with me, I would have difficulty figuring out how the entire system works. When I first started playing, most people there were much better than me and I didn’t know how to get started. Luckily, the best players also happen to have great humility and respect people who are trying to improve. They personally had to go through a lot of hurdles in order to be where they are, and they understand the challenges first-hand. If you just went up to any of them, you don’t feel the elitism that you get from other places. Does that sound familiar? Yeah, that’s probably the same for companies too. The brightest companies and people are those that don’t exude elitism. Although the academy does focus on the players who train and care about the badminton sport, they are respectful and humble towards everyone. If the academy makes sure that elitism is not part of their culture, the barrier to joining the community is actually very small.

Playing at this badminton academy that made me realize that a business does not need to be in a hyper-growth mode to be successful. It made me realize that a long-term growth mindset can work, and that it takes incredible discipline and a creative approach to problem-solving to make it work. I hope to see more (startup) companies use a long-term mindset when running a business.